In New York, there’s a museum for every aesthetic and intellectual taste. But it’s especially rich in museum holdings of art, with something for everyone. The city is home to some of the world’s finest examples of Ancient, Old Master, Impressionist, Modern and bleeding-edge contemporary work. To help you find the exact sort of edification you’re looking for, we’ve compiled this list of New York’s very best art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and more. And when you plan your visit, make sure to check for free museum days as well!
Best art museums in NYC
One of Kings County’s preeminent cultural institutions, this 560,000-square-foot venue made history as the first American museum to exhibit African objects as artwork. In addition to the more than 4,000 items in the Egyptian holdings, museumgoers can scope pieces by masters such as Cézanne, Monet and Degas, plus an entire center devoted to feminist art. (The venue is the permanent home of Judy Chicago’s massive installation The Dinner Party.) Beyond its physical acquisitions, the spot draws crowds with its BrooklyNites Jazz music series and the perennially popular free Target First Saturdays.
The opulent residence that houses a private collection of great masters (from the 14th through the 19th centuries) was originally built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The firm of Carrère & Hastings designed the 1914 structure in an 18th-century European style, with a beautiful interior court and reflecting pool. The permanent collections include world-class paintings, sculpture and furniture by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Renoir and French cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener.
The Met Breuer
Even before the Whitney moved to its Meatpacking District location, plans were afoot for The Metropolitan Museum of Art to take over the Whitney’s former Marcel Breuer-designed home on Madison Avenue. Breuer’s name graces what’s basically an entirely new institution intended to make the Met’s a major player in the current art scene: In addition to housing the Met’s collection of modern and contemporary art, the museum will mount major exhibitions of recent artists once it opens in March 2016. According to its agreement with the Whitney, the Met will rent the building for the next eight years. What officially happens next is up in the air at this point, but it’s likely the Met will hang onto the place. And, who knows? It may even use it to launch its own Biennial. 945 Madison Ave at 75th St (212-535-7710, metmuseum.org)
Sprawling doesn’t even begin to describe this Manhattan institution: It’s one of the few spots in the city where you could spend literally an entire day and see only a fraction of the holdings. Behind the doors of its iconic neoclassical facade lie 17 curatorial collections spanning countless eras and cultural perspectives, from prehistoric Egyptian artifacts to contemporary photography. Those seeking to satisfy their anthropological curiosity can explore the extensive assemblage of musical instruments, weapons and armor or the Costume Institute’s centuries of wearable art. And for committed museumgoers who have made their way through the permanent collections—an admirable feat—special exhibitions merit return visits year after year. Recent blockbusters have examined the career of the late designer Alexander McQueen and featured the works of Pablo Picasso.
Located in a building originally constructed to house the now defunct Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) features cutting edge examples of ceramics, furniture design, fiber art and metalsmithing, all involving “processes ranging from the artisanal to the digital,“ as its mission statement put its. As a result, MAD often mounts some of the liveliest shows of contemporary art around. Packed with amazing things to look at, MAD is definitely worth a visit.
Sure, you could spend a day getting lost in the permanent exhibits, which showcase all manner of priceless pieces from renowned artists. But just as essential are this museum’s other elements, including an attached cinema that combines art-house fare and more accessible offerings, a sculpture garden with works by Picasso and Rodin, and the Modern, a high-end restaurant and bar run by Danny Meyer. Free Fridays, an alluring prospect considering the sizable entry fee ($25 for adults), are best left to the tourists and penny-scraping students; visit the museum when you can hunker down for a while.
While we can’t ignore the virtues of its Manhattan forebear, this Long Island City offshoot distinguishes itself with a constantly evolving lineup of cutting-edge artwork and programming. Not only does PS1 bring in noteworthy artists from around the globe (Janet Cardiff, Olafur Eliasson), it curates one of the city’s premier summer events, Warm Up, bringing together innovative installations and live music to challenge visitors’ expectations of what art can be.
The first new art museum ever constructed from the ground up below 14th Street, the aptly named New Museum marks a major contribution to the continuing revitalization of downtown Manhattan. The bold seven-story building, designed by the cutting-edge Tokyo architectural firm Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA, opened in December 2007, housing three main gallery levels, a theater, a café operated by Hester Street Fair and roof terraces. The focus here is on emerging media and surveys of important but under-recognized artists—further evidence of its pioneering spirit.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete edifice became the home of the eponymous philanthropist’s collection in 1959; today, the iconic spiral is considered as much a work of art as the paintings it houses. In addition to pieces by masters such as Manet, Picasso and Chagall, the institution holds the most Kandinskys in the U.S., as well as one of the largest collections of Mapplethorpes in the world. And yes, there is a right way to see the exhibits: as Wright intended, beginning at the bottom and moseying around to the top.
After nearly 50 years in its Marcel-Breur-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, the Whitney Museum decamped in 2015 to a brand new home in Lower Manhattan's Meatpacking District, conceived by international starchitect Renzo Piano. Planted at the foot of the Highline along Ganesvoort Street, the new Whitney building boasts some 63, 000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor exhibition space. Founded in 1931 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt, the Whitney is dedicated to presenting the work of American artists. Its collection holds about 15,000 pieces by nearly 2,000 artists, including Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper (the museum holds his entire estate), Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg. Still, the museum’s reputation rests mainly on its temporary shows, particularly the exhibition everyone loves to hate, the Whitney Biennial. Held in even-numbered years, the Biennial remains the most prestigious (and controversial) assessment of contemporary art in America.